Pop stars pop epiphanies

Was it Stevie Wonder on Top of the Pops, or your hip older brother's Sonic Youth LPs? Paul Lester asks the chart-botherers of today to reminisce on their pop epiphanies

Kate Nash

Neneh Cherry: Buffalo Stance

This was wicked in a bubblegummy way. I love pop music, and this was the first one that made me feel like, "Oh my god!" - that intense thing where you repeat-play it and learn every word. I was only a year old when it came out in 1988 so I must have fallen in love with it later. I loved it so much. There were so many different sections, and the noises were amazing. And Neneh Cherry was so cool. Me and my sister shared a bedroom, so I used to go downstairs to hear it on the CD player; I'd plug in these massive headphones we had next to the stereo. It used to really piss my mum off because I'd be singing out loud. It's about a gigolo, and he goes to prison and she's saying, like, "Committed a crime and went inside/It was coming your way but you had to survive/When you lost your babe, you lost the race/Now you're looking at me to take her place." I thought she was really cool to make a pop song about that. When I DJ, I play it every time. "That's the girls on the block with the nasty curls/Wearing padded bras sucking beers through straws/Dropping down their drawers, where did you get yours?/Gigolo, huh, sucker?" I know all the words, guaranteed. I love the bit in the middle where she goes, "Smokin', not cokin'." And her hairdo - you could swing it round like a helicopter. After Neneh, I got into Destiny's Child, R&B Selecta, Ludacris, the Kinks because of my parents, Eminem who I loved so badly, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Oasis ... a mixture, really. I've never met her, but I heard she said on a TV programme that she liked me. How sick is that? I love that kind of shit.

Sarah Harding (Girls Aloud)

Oasis: Don't Look Back in Anger

I used to wake up my mum by playing Manic Monday by the Bangles when I was seven, but the first song I heard that made me think "Wahey! Music is fab!" was Don't Look Back in Anger when I was 11. I remember going to Glastonbury in a Volkswagen hippie van and having it large. After I got Oasis' second album, I played Slide Away on my Discman all frigging day, to the annoyance of my parents. But Don't Look Back in Anger was the one. As soon as I heard it I knew it would be No 1. Oasis didn't scare me because I was a rock chick - my dad was a musician, my brother is, they're both live artists, so I went to gigs from an early age. Pop to me, before the age of 10, was Cher and Michael Jackson; after 10 I went all indie. As much as I loved Blur because of Damon Albarn - I had pictures of him all over my diary at school - musically, I preferred Oasis. I've met Noel and Liam, we had a good old chat at the Met Bar, and they're lovely guys. I didn't tell them how much they meant to me. But they know I'm a massive fan. Mind you, when I met Liam I felt like a right twat, because they were going on tour and I said: "Wicked, are you going to do some of the old stuff?" He was probably thinking: "Fuck you."

Katie Melua

John Lennon: Imagine

This song really grabbed me in a way that no other music had before. It was instant - I didn't have to listen to it twice. It was on the telly, on the news of all places. John Lennon was on for some reason, and the song just captivated me. I was at home, in Belfast, and when this came on I rushed into the living room. I was about nine years old. It was the melody that captivated me at first: I loved its simplicity and, even though I hadn't heard it before, I felt like I'd heard it a million times. I was just frozen to the spot, and it made me in awe of not only the song, but the music itself. It got close to making me cry. After that, I asked my parents who it was, and I was told it was John Lennon, from the Beatles, so I decided I was going to be a Beatles fan. But I didn't have enough pocket money to go and buy all their albums so I've collected them all as I've grown up. The only song that's affected me in the same way since is Eva Cassidy's version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Richard Archer (Hard-Fi)

The Jam: Beat Surrender

My brother got me into this. It was one of the first songs he bought. He was four or five years older than me and I'd nick his Jam or Madness records and scratch them for him. I was about six or seven when I first heard it. I didn't know anything about the band or what they "meant" but when I saw my brother get into it, it was exciting. And even though older brothers beat you and torture you, you look up to them. It had a strong melody that was immediately grabbing. I liked the "Come on, boy/ Come on, girl" bit - I jumped around to it. Me and my brother had two rooms at the back of the house, and I used to hear it through the wall. Whenever my brother went out I'd go in there and put it on the tiny record player. So one minute I'd be playing the flexidisc featuring Bernard Cribbins that you'd get with Hornby railway sets, with their train noises and instructions about how to use train sets, the next it'd be the Jam and Madness. I was shit at football so here was my little thing. When Paul Weller asked me to perform with him at the Electric Proms last year, I suggested Beat Surrender. He said it had too many chords, and that Down in the Tube Station had too many words. In the end, we did Tube Station. I would never have dreamed that I'd be playing with him on stage 20 years after jumping around the room to Beat Surrender. After the Jam, I started making my own discoveries about music. But it wasn't until Oasis that I found a band on my wavelength.

Jack Peñate

Aretha Franklin: Respect

It was on a mix tape my mum made when I was very young, and I remember singing all the words, especially on car journeys, with my mum driving. It would have been a Saturday that I first heard it, because that's when mum would take me to a museum or something. I was amazed at how clever it was that they spelled out R.E.S.P.E.C.T. At five or six, I thought that was the cleverest thing ever. I used to do the Motown dance moves to it, twirling my fingers and moving my head from side to side. I think I probably asked for an Aretha album for Christmas. I bypassed most of the kids' stuff, although I loved Tom And Jerry. We had a huge record collection at home, and I'd listen to my brother's hip-hop, ragga and drum'n'bass records and my sister's pop stuff. We had a stereo each and we'd compete to see who could be the loudest. I once played Respect at a wedding back in the day. I was the original Wedding Singer.

Natasha Bedingfield

Stevie Wonder: If It's Magic

I stole Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life from Lewisham library after a friend told me to get it, and I never took it back. It was the summer holiday of 1993, when I was 12. Before that I was into Sesame Street and Disney. I wasn't really into 80s radio pop: I got into Prince and Michael Jackson later. But If It's Magic was the start of it all: the start of getting albums for myself, my initiation. My heart and mind exploded when I heard it. It's still my favourite record. I used to play it on my Discman. I'd lie on my bed while my brother Daniel beatboxed noisily in the room next door. It was hard to find any quiet in our house, so I'd go up to my bedroom and enter my own little world. I thought the harps were wonderful. If you hear a harp on my next record, you'll know where I got the idea from. I find his voice and songwriting style really soothing. If It's Magic is about how when something's good you want it to last forever and it doesn't - like when a kid picks up a butterfly and, after a while, it dies. That's painful, but it makes it more special. After I heard this I got more of Stevie's music. I take a lot of inspiration from him as a singer. Actually, I met him last year at the Grammys. He was with a crowd of people, but I thought I had to do it because he's my hero, so I went up to him and garbled something about how much I liked him. Who would have thought, that day in Lewisham, that one day I'd meet him? It's amazing.

Kate Walsh

Tori Amos: Cornflake Girl

I was 13 when I first heard it - and it's the reason I started writing songs on the piano. I heard it at home. It was winter, cold and dark, I'd just got off the school bus and a friend had given me the Under the Pink album on cassette. So I went indoors and put it on the house stereo, the one in the dining room. And it opened up a whole world of writing music. Prosody is the word: the music, the melody, the harmonies, the lyrics, the sentiments, everything is married up. It's an incredible song. It's got so many different moods - some are really beautiful, then at the end she's really giving it some. I've no idea what the song's about, but it's quite funny. She uses words so poetically - she could sing the telephone directory and it would sound beautiful. She rocks the piano, basically. I bought everything she ever did after this. I wanted to be like her. It wasn't an obsession, more a great appreciation because I felt so grateful that she'd opened my eyes to composition as opposed to just playing. I've found my own style now. She's getting a bit darker, more baroque and complex, whereas my songs are getting so simple you can see the raw bones coming out.

Roisin Murphy

Frank Sinatra: The Lady Is a Tramp

Everybody in my family has one or two songs in their repertoire that they can sing at the drop of a hat after a few drinks at a barbecue, wedding, even a funeral, and this is the one my mum sings - she's never afraid to play the tramp! She handed that sort of freedom to me, to be whoever I wanted to be. I was a child when I first heard it - my parents would have a party a week; they were much wilder than I could ever be. The song went deeper than just making me think pop music was for me: songs can reveal things about you. The way my mum sang this revealed a truth about herself. That environment of being around non-musicians who sang regularly and had a repertoire of songs made me want to learn, aged nine, a song that I could sing to my family. So when my mum went on holiday to America for three weeks, I decided to learn Don't Cry for Me Argentina. When I finally sang it for her and the family their gobs were absolutely wide open: "Oh god, she's just like Elaine Paige!" Later, when I came to Manchester, aged 12, I started hanging round with "weirdos", people who were really into music, mostly boys, who took me to see Sonic Youth. The band kept throwing Kim Gordon into the audience, and I thought "that's the kind of bird I want to be!" So I sold all my U2 records and bought Sister and Daydream Nation. To a little girl in Stockport in the mid-80s, Kim Gordon was the epitome of cool.

Stephen Duffy (the Lilac Time)

Incredible String Band: Ducks On a Pond

It was 1968 when I first heard this. I was on holiday in Wales, where there were lots of empty churches to hide in when it was raining. My brother, who was four years older than me, had a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder and a recording of Wee Tam and a few other Incredible String Band songs. It was a sunny day and we were all sitting around in our holiday cottage when this came on. If you hear stuff like this at an early age, everything else sounds a little bit ordinary. Some songs sound amazing because they have three or four separate sections that could be songs in themselves. This has Boys and Girls Come Out to Play in it, and that appealed to me as a kid. Also, apart from the bizarre musical ideas, the lyrics were incredible: "Peacocks talking of the colour grey ... Lovely Jesus nailed to a tree." As an eight-year-old I was intrigued. A year later my brother took me to see them live - it was the first concert I ever saw, and it was pretty central to my appreciation of music. I went backstage and met them; I even got their autographs. I was in awe: Robin Williamson, the singer, was extraordinary, a golden god. I was disappointed when I eventually grew my own beard - I looked like a member of Sinn Fein; I have to steer clear of dark glasses and berets. I subsequently collected everything ISB ever did, and still do, in that strange middle-aged way that leads you to eBay after several bottles of fine wine. In fact, I've just received an original 1967 7-inch Elektra version of Painting Box from Israel. I've become one of those people who only listen to mono vinyl; one of those people who say: "Records sounded better then."

Amy Macdonald

Michael Jackson: Billie Jean

I'm really into indie rock now, but nobody can ever really compare to Michael Jackson. He was the first artist I idolised. I was three or four when I first heard this, in 1990, and it opened my ears to pop. It was spectacular: Spielberg for the ears. And it made me think all pop would sound like this. But nobody could touch him. I became a massive Michael Jackson fan, so my parents bought me Thriller and Bad for my birthday. I've seen home movies, from my parents' extensive collection, of me trying to dance like him. I did try the moonwalk once but I failed miserably. I didn't do his "Ow!"s and crotch-grabbing, but I did the best I could, mumbling the words and everything. I even went to see him at Wembley Stadium when I was four. I bought all his albums as far as Dangerous. Then he faded off and came back with History, and all the rubbish started. But it didn't put me off him, because I didn't think he was guilty, just a tortured soul.

José Gonzáles

Markama: Hoy Estoy Aqui

My first musical memory is singing this when I was about five - it was made by friends of my dad. It made me feel happy. It's got flutes, acoustic guitars and a lot of singing - maybe four voices. It wasn't a hit - it was well-known in Argentina, but it didn't get in the charts. It's old, traditional, very similar to the music you hear in the mountains of Bolivia. It was the song that got me into music, although I didn't make music or play any instruments back then. I was always running around singing it. I didn't start playing music till I was 14. Later, I met the musicians who made it, when I was in Argentina about 10 years ago - I told them how much I liked the song. There have been other moments as good as hearing this for the first time, especially when I was a teenager, like when I heard the Misfits for the first time, which was mindblowing, or when my friend gave me a Tribe Called Quest album - I listened to that tape over and over. My teenage hero, though, was J Mascis: I was really into Dinosaur Jr.


Buju Banton: Bogle Dance

I used to go to Jamaica as a kid, and Bogle Dance was a particular favourite. It explained dance music to me - everyone did the dance to it, it was a big thing at parties. Through this I got into dancehall music, well before I was into UK music. I started writing my own songs soon after. The bogle dance is like a ragga dance - it explains it in the song. It's old school, for dancing on your own, not with ladies. I would have been 10, maybe 12, when I first heard it. We were staying in a hotel in Jamaica with the whole family: aunties, mum, brother, little cousins, everyone. And they did these talent shows, and one Friday me, my brothers and cousins finally got the courage to do "the bogle" in front of the whole hotel. It soon came back to haunt me. My God, I must look up that picture! It got quite a good reaction, though. This song showed me the power that music can have, and the power artists can have with a microphone. It could make people dance and follow directions - that stood out for me. When I wrote my own lyrics, I aimed to get that reaction. I used to write lyrics and remix songs with my older cousins while I was in Jamaica. Then, when I got back to England, I'd write lyrics at school on the back of my English book, and I'd hold lyrical battles in the playground. I started collecting Buju Banton records after this - he's one of my favourite artists. I did a song recently that sampled his voice, so hopefully one day I'll meet him. I hope I have the same effect he had on me. The other day a guy came up to me and said, "You got me into the UK scene, because before I was just into US hip-hop." It feels good to encourage other artists and shine a light on up-and-coming people. That's much better than having a No 1 record.

Irwin Sparkes (the Hoosiers)

Bobby Brown: Don't Be Cruel

I was about six when I heard this, in my brother's bedroom in Woodley, a suburb of Reading. I liked how rhythmic the words were, and how they became embedded in your brain. It was the first song I knew all the words to - even now, if you dared me, I could quote you all the words to the rap. It had a nursery rhyme quality to my young mind. I danced around to it with my hairbrush in front of the mirror. It was a great marriage of sound and melody, which is something that's affected us in the band - making the sound inform what the song is about. Don't Be Cruel was an amazing album. I found out about New Edition after this; I even bought the Ralph Tresvant and Bell Biv Devoe albums. Swingbeat/new jack swing, they called it - a precursor to the Neptunes and Timbaland. I parted company with Bobby Brown when he discovered crack. He should have been one of the most prolific artists of the 21st century, but now look at him. After Bobby Brown I got into Michael Jackson, then Stevie Wonder, gospel and funk. I soon grew out of funk when I became a guitar player and I realised I wasn't very good at it. I liked Blackstreet in the mid-90s but around that time I got into Blur. Although when I met Alfonso, our drummer, we bonded over a love of Bobby Brown and the realisation that, when it comes to music, it's about hooks and melodies. The song is king.

Kelly Jones (Stereophonics)

AC/DC: Highway To Hell

This was the song that made me want to make music. I was eight or nine years old and I heard this in a small independent record shop near my house. Me and Richard Jones, Stereophonics' bassist, used to sing it on the way to school in the morning. My brothers had a lot of soul records like Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, and there was a lot of Eagles and Credence Clearwater Revival in the house, but at that time at school there was a lot of punk and rock like AC/DC. They were the first band I got into: I collected all the T-shirts and patches for jackets. I used to watch them on Late Night in Concert on the BBC. Stuart, our first drummer, was a massive fan. He got the vinyl and we'd make tapes and listen to them in the park, AC/DC were the reason I bought a Gibson SG when I got a record deal at 22, which is a bit mad, because I became the top-seller of the SG, and it used to be Angus Young.

Jason Pebworth (Orson)

Queen: Another one Bites the Dust

We had music class in elementary school, and every Friday there was a show-and-tell and someone played this. For the first time I felt like I wasn't listening to my parents' music. I went absolutely crazy. I didn't know at the time that the bassline was from Chic's Good Times - I thought it was all Queen's originality. I felt as excited as an eight-year-old could be about rock music. I'd play it in my bedroom in our home in Texas on my little children's record player with the tiny speakers. The second song on the album, The Game, was Dragon Attack, and it felt like the devil's music; it felt slightly sinister and bad. I became obsessed with that album. I didn't even know what Queen really looked like; I only had this picture on the cover of the album with them all leather-clad. I didn't even know which one was the singer. I was a bit young to grow a moustache. I've tried, but I do a shit moustache. After this, I bought everything by Queen, and wore the cassettes out, or played the CDs till they were scratched. I even had a T-shirt that said "Flash" on it after the Flash Gordon soundtrack they did. Imagine a fat blond-haired kid with glasses, with the word Flash on his shirt - I didn't know about irony at that age. I was quite a sight.

Nina Persson (the Cardigans)

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts: I Love Rock'n'Roll

It was 1982, and I would have been eight years old, in the second grade at school. My cousins, who were older than me, were really cool, with boyfriends and everything, and they made me this tape, with Joan Jett on one side and the Grease soundtrack on the other. It made me want to get my own records and listen to music. But I didn't dance to it - I've never danced in my whole life. It should be more accepted to say you hate to dance. Euphoria is all in the mind. I didn't go for all her other music, and it's not a song I would do live - it's not an amazing piece of music, it's just good the way it's made. It appeals to eight-year-olds and totally senile people, too. It's simple but full of life. I've never met Joan Jett, but I did go and see her play at the Mercury Lounge in New York, which was amazing. She is totally hot. She still had a great body at 45; completely sexy. Kinda tough but smart. I'm still not really sure I was supposed to be a rock star, and I certainly didn't want to be when I was eight. I didn't identify with her in that way. I've always mostly been into singer-songwriters, acoustic ones like Joni Mitchell or Lisa Germano. An all-female band like the Runaways was never something I wanted to do. I'd love eight-year-olds to be into my music. But maybe I'm not foxy enough or I don't show enough of my midriff. Plus, I can't dance.

Sister Bliss (Faithless)

The Stranglers: Golden Brown

This was one of those things where your brain explodes because it didn't sound like anything to do with pop. I remember taping it off the radio and Steve Wright shouting over the end of it. It was a pivotal, brain-exploding moment: the way it was produced, the sound of it, the harpsichords ... I bought it from the newsagent at the end of my road in north London where they sold ex-jukebox singles for 20p; I used to buy them on the way home from school, things like XTC's Senses Working Overtime. That's when I started my record collection, which had a lot of Adam & the Ants in it. Kings of the Wild Frontier was my favourite album. I used to sit there passionately, reverently listening to the charts, or to Annie Nightingale, who played some extraordinary music. I was 12 years old and on the cusp of that period of wanting to be part of something desperately, not feeling like a child any more. That's when you experience the power of pop music the most, when the music has the potency to speak to you. When you have no money as a child you have to rely on older people's record collections. My friend had a fantastic collection and I taped it all. I listened to music in such an obsessive way; I'd play things till they wore out. It's not surprising that I became a DJ.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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